A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Tracing invisible connections from a young woman’s lonely grave

A young man arrives in the settlement of Melbourne to make a new life, and the fortunes of several women and their children are sealed. Inger Kviseth concludes our Graveyard Shift series, discovering lost lives in the Melbourne General Cemetery.

Tracing invisible connections from a young woman’s lonely grave

The death of Sarah Pay, aged 26, is recorded.

Words by Inger Kviseth

Under the protective branches of a large cypress pine stands a gravestone, seemingly forgotten. There are no flowers, and the teetering stone is plain. It is away from other, grander tombs. Its weathered state is a testament to the more than 150 years that have passed since the deaths of the people whose names it bears.

“In memory of Sarah, the beloved wife of Willm Huson Pay, who died suddenly October 6. 1859 Aged 26 years”.

Sarah rests alone. Her husband would take his own life many years later, and his body would never be found. Details of William’s life are readily available, but Sarah’s short life is a mystery. As is the case for two other women whose lives were connected to William.

Sarah Wilton Pay was born to Thomas Wilton and Elizabeth Baker Wilton in 1833 in Lambeth, Surrey, in England. She was baptised on July 7, according to records of select births and christenings in England 1538-1975, but her exact birthday is unknown. Records on unassisted passengers show that her father travelled “with family; wife, one child” to Melbourne in 1851.

Dr Jackie Dickenson, of the History and Philosophical Studies Department at the University of Melbourne, says that “her new life would have been quite a shock to her as parts of Melbourne was quite rough and tumble at the time, very different from Surrey”.

William Huson Pay arrived in Melbourne from England in July 1852 as a cabinet maker, according to a passenger list for the Mariner. He was born to John and Margaret Pay in 1829 in London, according to birth records in England, and was drawn to Melbourne when the gold rush began. In Melbourne he reinvented himself into a leather merchant and opened a small shop in South Melbourne.

Marriage records in Victoria show that the two were married in 1854.

According to Melbourne University historian Professor David Charles Goodman, this was a time of tumultuous change in Australia and Victoria. Melbourne was growing from a small pastoral settlement to a large city as Victoria separated from NSW in 1851 and gold was found in central Victoria, prompting the gold rush of 1851-1852.

“The population of Melbourne exploded,” says Professor Goodman.

“People were coming from all over the world, and all walks of life, to get a piece of the growing economy.”

The city was not prepared to handle such an explosion in its population. Infrastructure and housing were limited, and of those who stayed in the city many were forced to live in tents because they could not afford houses; infections and diseases spread quickly through the streets, said Professor Goodman.

Sarah succumbed to the after-effects of childbirth in 1859, a common cause of death in the 1800s.

“She would not have had the gynaecological care necessary, and if she survived the birth itself it is likely that she would have caught an infection that could kill her,” said Dr Dickenson.

The baby was named Ellen Wilton Pay, according to birth registries in Victoria.

In 1863, William married Eleanor Elizabeth Hayes and moved himself and his daughter to New Zealand.

“Getting remarried under such circumstances was perfectly normal in the 1800s,” said Professor Goodman.

It was important to remarry and have more children to secure one’s legacy. There was, at this point, no guarantee that children would survive infancy or childhood, he said.

The new family settled in Dunedin. William and Eleanor had four children by 1869, according to records on Public Records Office Victoria and birth registries in New Zealand.

However, on  June 11, 1870, the Otago Daily Times ran an ad for the bankruptcy sale of the estate of one William Huson Pay at his shop in Dunedin. On August 15, 1871, the New Zealand Gazette published a report of the bankruptcy showing that William was still in serious debt.

The steamer the Claud Hamilton.

The steamer the Claud Hamilton.

In October, he boarded the steamer Claud Hamilton back to Melbourne. After the ship left the port in Lyttelton, New Zealand, and reached the open seas on the 20, he jumped overboard. The Weekly Times (Melbourne) reported that the sea was rough that day and saving him was impossible. There are no records of his body being found. He left his family destitute.

After her father’s death Ellen was sent, by her stepmother, back to Melbourne where she was adopted by a Mr and Mrs Blackburn on Sutton Street. She lived with the Blackburns until her death in 1884, merely a year younger than her mother, Sarah, was when she died.

Eleanor Pay lived, according to several records on New Zealand residency, in Invercargill until her death in 1924. According to NZ Cemetery and Burial Records, she was buried there and her children were buried with her.

Little is known of the women whose lives were so tied to William’s, their histories forgotten and never told, as is the truth of so many of the women in the 1800s.

Dr Dickenson says that “their lives and how they interacted with society would have been completely dependent on their fathers or husbands and how they treated and viewed women’’.

Married women would rarely have to work, especially someone married to a merchant like William, but any potential social engagements or charity work would most likely not be recorded unless their husbands were involved.

Sarah, Ellen, and Eleanor were all bound by the bonds of family and were connected to one man.

However, due to the vicious twists of life, in a grave under a large cypress tree in Melbourne General Cemetery, Sarah Wilton Pay rests alone.

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